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Intellect

BYU study: Children's sitcoms turning table on negative weight stereotypes

Number of overweight characters in shows also mirrors U.S. demographics

With Miley Cyrus headlining the Stadium of Fire this weekend, parents have likely been trying to catch a few episodes of her hit TV show, Hannah Montana, in hopes of doing a little research.

It turns out a team of Brigham Young University researchers have been doing their own more rigorous research on Hannah Montana and other kids sitcoms and they've found an encouraging trend: children's sitcoms are good for body image.

In an article appearing in the June issue of Body Image, communications professor Tom Robinson, along with co-authors Mark Callister and Tahlea Jankoski, detail findings that show overweight characters in these programs are not only more realistically represented in terms of percentages, but also do not carry traditionally negative stereotypes.

"It doesn't appear that the typical stereotypes about weight that show up in more adult, prime-time television are appearing in children's sitcoms," Robinson said.

In their study of the portrayal of body weight in kids TV sitcoms, the researchers studied 162 characters and found that the overweight ones were not shown to be less happy, less intelligent or less outgoing. Past research has shown media relying on common weight-related stereotypes, wherein overweight people are less popular, are less attractive and are less intelligent.

They also found that the representation of those overweight characters mirrored closely actual U.S. demographics for adolescents. The authors found that 15 percent of the TV characters were overweight, which is only slightly lower than the 17 percent national average for U.S. children and adolescents reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"What we're finding is that the producers and directors of these children's shows are becoming a little bit more aware of body weight and are portraying children more diverse," Robinson said. "Children aren't being bombarded with that thin ideal and that that's what is popular and acceptable. The things they're seeing on TV aren't much different than what they're seeing at school."

The study looked at characters from 19 children's TV sitcoms from three children's networks: Discovery Kids, the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.

Of the three networks studied, the Disney Channel was found to be doing the best job at including a variety of different body weights in their main characters. The study found 21 percent of their characters were overweight, 46 percent were normal and 33 were thin.

Overall, six of the 19 sitcoms had no overweight characters and another seven had only one overweight character. The show with the most overweight characters was That's So Raven, with six.

Nickelodeon's Zoey 101, the show starring Britney Spears' younger sister Jamie Lynn Spears, had seven thin characters, three normal and two overweight characters. Hannah Montana had four thin roles, three average figures and two overweight characters.

The study did reveal one stereotype still existed for overweight children: a higher percentage of above average weight characters were portrayed as having fewer friends.

Robinson and Callister are associate professors of communications at BYU and Jankoski was a graduate student at the time of the study.

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